A series of features that take a look at some of the greatest comic book creators of the 1960s and 1970s. Known affectionately as the “Silver Age”, this was a period when the superhero comic was being redefined and established as a major influence on popular culture. Characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were being created as a new kind of superhero for the American public. They were superheroes that had domestic arguments, were filled with teenage angst, struggled to pay the bills, and could be related to on a human level. Comic books were experiencing a creative boom, and amongst the plethora of talent driving it was the great… Gil Kane!
Golden Age Beginnings
Over an impressive career spanning some 50 years, Gil Kane’s powerful figure-work and flawless visuals have graced the pages of almost every major comic book. His most famous work was on Green Lantern and The Atom during the 1960s and his versions of these characters would become the most recognised and popular to this day. He was the first artist to openly work for both DC and Marvel, and was pencilling The Amazing Spider-Man during some of its most well-known stories, not least the death of Gwen Stacy.
Born Eli Katz, he began early as a professional comic artist, being only 16 when he received his first job in 1942. Just two years later, he was already working as an assistant to industry legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at Timely Comics (Marvel’s predecessor). After a number of years working under various pen-names, he finally settled with National Comics (later DC Comics) in 1949. However, it wasn’t until a decade later that he would begin to truly establish himself as Gil Kane, one of the most influential artists to work in four-colour publishing.
Reinventing Heroes: Kane at DC (1959-1971)
DC Comics’ Showcase no.22 (1959) saw the beginning of a new era for Green Lantern. The Showcase series had previously seen the relaunch of The Flash, which many consider to be the beginning of the Silver Age, and his popularity paved the way for further re-establishing Golden Age super-heroes. Steering the emerald gladiator’s revival was Gil Kane, who gave the character a modern makeover to appeal to a new generation of readers.
Kane created Green Lantern’s classic green and black costume and gave him a new identity, one that still remains the fan-favourite to this day – Hal Jordan, test pilot for Ferris Aircraft. Working with writer John Broome, he laid the foundations for Green Lantern’s origin; the dying alien, Abin Sur, who first gives Hal the power ring and initiates him into the Green Lantern Corps, and Hal’s love interest, Carol Ferris, who unknowingly becomes one of his deadliest foes in the guise of Star Sapphire. Kane’s dynamic art style was perfect for this cosmic character. When Green Lantern soared, it was with a powerful grace, and when he fought, he strained with every muscle. Describing his own style, Gil Kane once said:
“I’ve always felt that if I had to characterize my own work, when it finally started to hit its stride and take on a style of its own, it looked like powerful gymnasts, ballet dancers, trapeze artists […] a kind of lyrical quality to the body, a poetry of movement but at the same time a degree of power, strength.” [Read more].
Many other characters in DC’s roster would get Gil Kane’s attention, including a re-designed Atom and Wonder Girl in the Teen Titans, but by the late 1960s he was freelancing for Stan Lee at DC’s competitor and would soon join the Marvel bullpen in a permanent position.
Drugs, a Messiah and Killing Gwen: Kane at Marvel
As his time at DC was coming to a close Gil Kane released two creator-owned books, His Name is… Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971), the latter of which is widely regarded as one of the first “graphic novels”. However, his work for Marvel during this time would arguably have greater impact and wider appeal.
Gil Kane took over from John Romita, Sr. pencilling The Amazing Spider-Man in 1970. His exciting composition and lean, muscular figure-work suited the agile web-slinger well, and the stories he drew were some of the most ground-breaking in the character’s history. A three-issue story with Stan Lee saw Spider-Man tackling the issue of drug-abuse and famously bypassed the Comics Code Authority (no.96-98, 1971).
Perhaps the most controversial story in Marvel history is “The Night Gwen Stacy Died / The Goblin’s Last Stand!” (no.121-122, 1973), in which Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy is killed, falling from Brooklyn Bridge. There is much debate over the cause of her death – whether it was by the hands of the Green Goblin or Spider-Man himself – though the crucial panel clearly indicates a small “SNAP” next to her neck just as his web catches her leg.
Among a number of character re-designs and co-creations for Marvel, a personal favourite of mine is Gil Kane’s brief run on the messianic character Adam Warlock, whose existential adventures and lyrical dialogue are brilliantly complemented by Kane’s perfectly anatomised and larger-than-life characterisation.
The Legacy of Kane: After the Silver Age
Gil Kane remained a prolific and prominent artist until his death in 2000, working on numerous comics, as well as cartoons and newspaper comic strips. In the 1980s he was once again working on the DC characters he was most closely associated with, as well as Superman. He had collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Alan Moore, who even included him as a character in his story (illustrated by Kane himself) for Awesome Entertainment’s Judgement Day: Aftermath (1998).
Essential Spider-Man vols.4-7 (some harder to get than others)
Essential Warlock vol.1 (first 7 issues by Gil Kane)
Showcase Presents Green Lantern vols.1-4 (some harder to get than others)
(Green Lantern no.1-20 also available in) The Green Lantern Chronicles vols.1-4
Showcase Presents The Atom vols.1-2 (2007/2008)
Gil Kane: Art and Interviews (2002)